The Unexpected Offers the Unexpected

No matter how comprehensive our analysis of a given set of conditions, we can never predict with certainty what such conditions will produce and how we will be impacted. The unexpected hovers over our fragile personal universes as both curse and blessing.

Several nights ago a fire engine with red lights flashing and sirens screaming came to an alarming stop just outside our house. It was our neighbor. Something was wrong in our neighbor’s home with whom we happen to be close. Firefighters and paramedics were busy inside and we spoke with D asking if her husband was Okay. Yes, he was fine. It was their son. The twisting staircase of the old home could not accommodate the unwieldy gurney, so he was placed in a blanket with the burley firemen stationed around it each holding up their portion as they made their ways down the stairs. When they arrived at the front stoop, the gurney only 2 more small sets of stairs away, a fireman told me to take his arm and call “step” as they approached the concrete steps to the sidewalk where the gurney awaited. In a situation where one cannot avoid feeling helpless or even “in the way” to be asked to do this was transformative. For a moment, I was able to do something.

This is a feeling I had known often as a hospital chaplain. My final two years in Divinity School were spent working at St Rafael’s Hospital and the Bristol Hospital as a Chaplain for some 30 hours per week along with regular class time. When the dreaded code blue call came across the hospital alert system, it was my duty to be at the bedside of the coding patient without interfering with the doctors scrambling to save a life.

What do I do? It always troubled me. I did not yet have the tools of my vocation- the sacraments, where I might busy myself with anointing the poor soul in extremis. I could pray. Of course, I could pray but I wasn’t gonna make a show of it.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Indeed, it was described by Henri Nouwen, who was one of my teachers as, a “ministry of presence”. It was described by a Bishop I knew less romantically. He called it “creative uselessness” and we were told to get used to and comfortable with it. So, it goes, and I have digressed.

Well, the young man was whisked off to the hospital complaining of what seemed to have been a collarbone fracture. He was kept overnight and after a battery of tests, it turned out they discovered he had stage three colon cancer. One moment our world is one way and the next moment it has been turned upside down. The unexpected hovers over us as both potential blessing and curse.

Yet, what can we call this? A curse? A wave of symptoms having virtually nothing to do with colon cancer but led to its discovery. A blessing? When is a diagnosis of cancer a blessing? Yet, one would be hard-pressed to describe this as a curse, for it has serendipitously created the opportunity for intervention.

I am quick to judge circumstances.

This is good.

This is bad.

This is such a shit-show.

This is absolutely wonderful, even magical.

Not only am I often wrong in my judgement, maybe even more importantly, my judgement impedes my capacity to see beyond the meaning I have assigned to an event. The shit-show remains a shit-show because my judgement is bigger than my vision.

There is some value in learning how to be still in a crisis instead of rendering a judgement. I don’t mean that a doctor should contemplate the meaning of an event when their immediate assistance is required. I mean the vast majority of us firing off judgements based on scant information leaves us groping for the truth.

The unexpected happens …well when it is unexpected. But it does happen. But even as we behold what unfolds as a result of the unexpected, hold your judgement. Do not determine the hero has been saved by the Deus ex machina or has been the victim of some sinister force. Instead, be creatively useless, be the jester of presence- the one who implores us to hold our tongues lest we utter what will only confirm how foolish our judgements can be.

Alan Watts retells an old Chinese parable worth a read here.

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”

The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

A blessing may foretell misfortune and misfortune may foretell a blessing.

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